A new culture war is breaking out in America. Unlike the culture wars of the recent past, this one isn’t about the place of Judeo-Christian values in our public life, the regulation of abortion, or the recognition of same-sex unions. Those conflicts are still with us. But they’ve been overshadowed by the fight over the future of American national identity in the face of rapid and accelerating demographic change. This new culture war will define the contest for the Republican presidential nomination in the months to come, as it has for the better part of the last year. And in all likelihood, it will shape our politics for decades to come.
The most visible manifestation of this new culture war has been the rise of Donald Trump. By focusing his candidacy almost entirely on immigration, the billionaire entertainer has energized millions of voters who love him as a bold truth-teller or damn him as a vicious and dangerous bigot. Trump’s recent, opportunistic discovery of an interest in illegal immigration is ironic, as Trump has been quite comfortable with the use of unauthorized immigrant labor on his various mega-projects.
But Trump and his clownish provocations aren’t really the issue. His emergence as the voice of the anti-immigration Right is a reflection of the failure of the Republican establishment to grapple with lawlessness at the border and half a century of mass immigration. Consider the events of the past two years. Child migrants have surged into the United States from Central America, and working-class cities and towns across the country are struggling to absorb them. Before the federal courts stepped in, President Obama signed an executive order shielding roughly half of all unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. from the threat of deportation, a move he had previously suggested was out of bounds. And now the U.S. is experiencing yet another wave of Central American arrivals. Border Patrol officials report that many unauthorized immigrants believe that the U.S. is going to welcome them with open arms, and who can blame them given the president’s rhetoric? The ongoing crisis in Syria has prompted a fierce debate over Muslim refugees, and the San Bernardino attack has shone a bright light on our immigration bureaucracy’s decision to admit one of the killers, Tashfeen Malik, an Islamic radical from Pakistan.
For years, elite conservatives have ignored grassroots opposition to mass immigration, and Trump’s rise is their reward. That GOP primary voters are in revolt over immigration, and that so many of them are spurning elected Republicans they no longer trust, should come as no surprise.
Does this mean that all conservatives need to do is call for closing the borders, and then all will be well? Not by a long shot. If Republicans who favor mass immigration have been blind to its downsides, many of those who are opposed to it have themselves been blinded by nostalgia — they have failed to recognize that the more culturally homogeneous America of the 1980s, when many older conservatives came of age, is gone.
The result is that anti-immigration conservatives have alienated potential allies. Many centrist and liberal African Americans share conservatives’ skepticism about immigration, yet they are reluctant to join forces with a movement they see as racially exclusive. Many Hispanics and Asians, whether foreign- or native-born, see the virtue in reducing less-skilled immigration while easing the way for skilled workers. Political scientists Jens Hainmueller and Daniel Hopkins have gathered considerable evidence that support for such a policy is widespread among Americans of all backgrounds. Yet immigration advocates have deliberately framed the immigration debate as all-or-nothing, and conservatives have let them get away with it.
To win this new culture war, conservatives must do more than embrace a new approach to immigration. They must offer a new conception of American nationhood. Just as the melting-pot nationalism of the 1900s forged a new American identity that natives and immigrants of various European nationalities could embrace, a new melting-pot nationalism is needed to counter the ethnic and class antagonisms that threaten our society today.
Regardless of where you stand on immigration, there is no question that the post-1965 immigration wave has transformed American society. Roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born, up from 4.7 percent in 1970. And this share is set to increase substantially in the years to come. If anything, this number understates the impact of immigration on American society. Had the post-1965 immigration wave never come, the U.S. population would today be 252 million rather than 324 million. Over the next 50 years, demographers at the Pew Research Center anticipate, new immigrants and their descendants will account for 88 percent of all population growth. Part of the reason is that the birthrate among native-born Americans has fallen to unprecedentedly low levels, so immigration is a much bigger part of our demographic picture than it would be had the birthrates of the post-war decades persisted into the present. This confluence of falling birthrates and surging immigration explains why the cultural character of America is changing so rapidly.
Many of the more strident immigration advocates style themselves as fighters for civil rights or racial justice — they suggest that calls for reducing immigration are driven by racial animus. So it is worth keeping in mind that regardless of what happens to our immigration policy, non-Hispanic whites will become a minority of all Americans in the decades to come. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the U.S. population will become majority-minority in 2044, a projection that factors in an ongoing immigrant influx. Yet America’s majority-minority future is already with us in majority-minority states such as California and Texas, and also in younger generations. The population of Americans younger than five is majority-minority today, and the same will be true of the population of Americans younger than 18 by 2020. A disproportionately large share of this rising generation is composed of immigrants, but the native-born children of immigrants are the chief drivers of demographic change.
What kind of majority-minority society will we become? Will we live in a racially divided America characterized by high levels of segregation and inter-ethnic distrust? Or will we become a more cohesive society united by language, culture, and a sense of shared fate, with ethnic distinctions blurred by ties of friendship and kinship?
America’s current immigration policy serves the interests of low-wage employers and immigrant voters looking to bring family members to the U.S., yet it fails to account for the challenge of integrating immigrants and their descendants into American life. The challenge is not that today’s immigrants come from Latin America, Asia, and Africa rather than Europe. It is that the United States has absorbed far more less-skilled immigrants than any other affluent market democracy, while the children of less-skilled immigrants often struggle to climb into the middle class. Countries such as Canada and Australia have admitted more immigrants per capita, but they cherry-pick skilled ones. In contrast, the U.S. has welcomed large numbers of less-skilled immigrants just as global economic integration and automation have put the wages of less-skilled workers under intense pressure, and as the family lives of college-educated and non-college-educated adults and their children have sharply diverged. Had the post-1965 immigration wave consisted solely of people with higher-than-average levels of literacy and numeracy, its effect on U.S. society would have been markedly different, even if we had admitted the same number of people from the same countries.
To be sure, today’s immigrants have a higher level of educational attainment than those who arrived in 1965. Specifically, the Pew Research Center reports that while only half of newly arrived immigrants in 1970 had at least a high-school diploma, by 2013 that share had increased to over three-quarters. And while only a fifth of immigrants had graduated from college in 1970, 41 percent had done so in 2013. Immigration advocates often point to such facts as cause for optimism, particularly when conservatives express concern about immigrants’ skill levels.
Are the immigration optimists right — are the skills of recent immigrants actually quite strong? The answer is no. Skilled immigrants have fared extremely well in America in recent decades. But skilled immigrants have been very much in the minority in the post-1965 era. Given that the U.S. is a desirable place to live, the U.S. could quite easily use its immigration system to raise its average skill level by recruiting immigrants with literacy and math skills above the U.S. average, not below it. But we don’t.
So far, the policy debate over immigration has focused on the question of whether less-skilled immigrants reduce native wages. This is not the right question to ask. Given that the U.S. admits a finite number of immigrants, the right question to ask is which mix of immigrants will most serve U.S. national interests.
The most widely cited evidence we have on the impact of immigrant labor on U.S. wages is from the economists Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri, whose work is often invoked by immigration advocates. Their findings suggest that immigrant workers have a modestly positive impact on native wages and a modestly negative one on the wages of previous immigrants. These numbers can be misleading, as much depends on the skill level of the immigrants and natives in question. For example, many researchers believe that less-skilled immigrants allow skilled natives to increase their productivity by lowering the cost of child care, food preparation, and other services.
What about the notion that less-skilled immigrants displace less-skilled natives? Here the story is more complicated, because less-skilled natives often establish new economic niches that reflect their skills. Broadly speaking, less-skilled immigrants with low levels of English-language proficiency tend to specialize in jobs that don’t require them to interact with English-speaking customers. Less-skilled natives, meanwhile, often gravitate to jobs that make use of their language skills. These two groups can be complementary, as in the case of the immigrant busboy working alongside the native server in a restaurant.
There are other subtle aspects of the impact of immigration on the labor market, however. The availability of low-wage immigrant labor can obviate the need for labor-saving innovation. If middle-class American families could hire chauffeurs at low cost, for instance, as affluent families do in poor parts of the developing world, there would be less effort devoted to the invention of self-driving cars. Machines can substitute for low-wage workers, but consumers and employers will make the switch only if it makes economic sense to do so. Less-skilled immigration ensures that for many routine tasks, it is cheaper to hire a low-wage immigrant worker than to invest in technology. This helps explain why firms in societies with a more restrictive approach to immigration, such as Denmark, Japan, and South Korea, are often quicker to deploy labor-saving technology than their U.S. counterparts.
What immigration advocates often gloss over is that immigrants are not merely workers who can be just as good as machines at performing certain tasks. They are also taxpayers and consumers of public services. The low wages commanded by less-skilled immigrants are a boon for parents who need child care or urban professionals looking for a cut-rate manicure. The flip side is that families headed by less-skilled immigrants earn extremely low incomes. There is a substantial gap between the incomes of less-skilled immigrants and the level of consumption they need to lead lives most Americans would consider decent. And it is the public sector that is called upon to close this gap.
Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies has carefully documented that immigrant-headed households are far more likely to make use of means-tested safety-net programs, such as Medicaid and SNAP, than are native-headed households. Drawing on data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, Camarota finds that 49 percent of immigrant-headed households access these programs (as opposed to 30 percent of native-born households), and that the share rises to 72 percent for immigrant-headed households with children. This high rate of immigrant reliance on safety-net programs is not a product of fraud or deception on the part of immigrants. It simply reflects the fact that the U.S. immigrant population is less skilled than the native population, and safety-net programs are designed to give a lifeline to poor families that can’t provide for themselves.
The question immigration advocates haven’t seriously considered is whether it is wise to welcome large numbers of new less-skilled immigrants when millions of less-skilled immigrants already here find it impossible to support themselves and their children without public assistance. Indeed, one could argue that children of poor immigrants will need increasingly expensive labor-intensive services in the years to come. In recent years, liberals have embraced the cause of universal early-childhood education. They argue that children raised by less-educated and less-affluent parents are often poorly prepared for academic success, and so these children will need a series of expensive interventions to have any chance of entering the middle class. Who will pay for these interventions? It certainly won’t be less-skilled immigrants, who already rely on safety-net programs in large numbers and who earn wages so low that the tax revenues they generate are quite modest.
Why haven’t recent less-skilled immigrants followed the path of the less-skilled Europeans who settled in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s? There are many contributing factors. The labor-market prospects for less-skilled workers have greatly deteriorated in recent decades, but we also have a more extensive safety net to support low-income households. A century ago, immigrants who failed to flourish in the U.S. labor market or who wanted to maintain stronger ties to their ethnic communities often returned to their native countries. Today, safety-net benefits greatly ease the pain of not earning enough to support a family, and new communications technologies ensure that immigrants can easily retain ties to their ancestral homelands.
But the most important reason that today’s immigrants have had such a different trajectory from those of earlier eras is that in 1921 and 1924, Congress passed legislation that sharply curtailed immigration. Take the contrast between Mexican Americans, a community that has greatly increased in size due to immigration over the past 40 years, and Italian Americans. Roughly 35 percent of Mexican Americans were born in Mexico, and roughly another third are the U.S.-born children of Mexican immigrants. In contrast, the vast majority of Italian Americans were born in the U.S.
In Replenished Ethnicity, Stanford sociologist Tomás Jiménez argues that one of the main differences between the Mexican-origin population in the U.S. and the white-ethnic descendants of immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s is that because mass European immigration ended more than 80 years ago, Italian Americans do not generally find themselves in social worlds dominated by recent Italian immigrants. The result is that Italian-American identity is largely symbolic and optional, and Italian Americans are perceived as indistinguishable from other white Anglos. The end of immigrant replenishment led to sharp increases in inter-ethnic marriages for Italian Americans and other white ethnics. Mexican Americans, in contrast, are part of an ethnic community that until recently was constantly being replenished by new Mexican arrivals, which in turn has sharpened the distinctiveness of Mexican identity.
This dynamic applies to other ethnic groups as well. In 2007, Zhenchao Qian of Ohio State and Daniel T. Lichter of Cornell found that over the course of the 1990s, the percentage of Asians marrying whites, and Hispanics marrying whites, fell sharply, a development they attribute to rising immigration. As the size of an ethnic group increases, in-group contact and interaction increases. This in turn strengthens in-group ethnic solidarity while reducing intermarriage. Qian and Lichter found that the skills gap between immigrants and natives also plays a role. For example, native-born Hispanic women with a college education were more than three times as likely to be married to whites as native-born Hispanics with less than a high-school education.
What these differing rates of intermarriage suggest is that ethnicity and class are merging. Several decades from now, the descendants of educated native-born Hispanics will probably have blended into the American mainstream — yet the descendants of the less educated may find themselves as a separate and distinct population, isolated from the corridors of power and concentrated among the poor and working-class.
For centuries, African Americans have been concentrated in the bottom half of the U.S. income distribution while the top half has been largely white. This has contributed to a sense of permanent outsider status among many African Americans, who feel wounded and at times angered by their exclusion from the American Dream, and for good reason. This black–white racial divide is so familiar and so deeply embedded in our nation’s history that we take it for granted. But could it prove to be just the tip of the iceberg, a preview of other ethnic conflicts that could emerge as the children and grandchildren of less-skilled immigrants face discrimination and economic hardship? It is all too easy to imagine a future in which poor Hispanics and blacks grow ever more resentful of white wealth and power, while wealthy whites come to see poor blacks and Hispanics as members of rival tribes rather than compatriots.
Conservatives must offer an alternative to clashing ethnic tribalisms. Just as melting-pot nationalism helped forge a common American identity in the middle decades of the last century, we need a new melting-pot nationalism suited to our own time. And this new nationalism must begin with a fresh approach to immigration policy. Anti-immigration rhetoric tends to frame high levels of immigration as a threat to natives, not as a barrier to integration, assimilation, and upward mobility for the tens of millions of immigrant families that have settled here. That needs to change. The ongoing influx of less-skilled immigrant workers puts economic pressure on the less-skilled immigrants who already reside in our country, and it reinforces their cultural separation from Americans who belong to other ethnic groups. Moreover, less-skilled immigration strains the fiscal capacity of government. By reducing less-skilled immigration, we could tighten the market for less-skilled labor and increase the likelihood that immigrants will interact with people outside their own ethnic groups.
Keep in mind that sharply curtailing less-skilled immigration needn’t entail a drastic reduction in immigration levels overall. While the U.S. has welcomed large numbers of less-skilled immigrants, Canada and Australia have welcomed an even larger number of skilled immigrants. The result is that the latter countries have immigrant populations that have integrated far more successfully than America’s. The U.S. can learn from their experience. Indeed, moderately increasing the influx of skilled English-speaking immigrants who command high wages and reducing less-skilled immigration could be complementary strategies. While less-skilled immigration increases the number of Americans who need public assistance, skilled immigration can ease the burden of financing these social programs. There will have to be more to melting-pot nationalism than just conservative immigration reform. But conservative immigration reform can serve as the foundation on which this new nationalism rests.
Are any of the Republican presidential candidates capable of talking about our fractured national identity in an intelligent and compelling way? So far, two candidates stand out. Ted Cruz has gone the farthest in outlining a detailed agenda for strengthening immigration enforcement and limiting less-skilled immigration. For that, he deserves great credit. Marco Rubio, one of the architects of the Gang of Eight immigration bill, has much to answer for. The bill he championed would have sharply increased immigration, including less-skilled immigration, and it would have granted millions of illegal immigrants a path to legal status without first guaranteeing that future illegal immigration would be reduced. Yet it is Rubio who is best positioned to make the case for melting-pot nationalism, mostly because of his optimistic and inclusive tone. If conservatives are to win the war over our national identity, they will do so by appealing to a hopeful vision of a more united and prosperous America, not by catering to fear and resentment. If they fail to do so, if they allow bombast and chauvinism to drown out the compassionate case for integration and assimilation, conservatives won’t just lose elections — they will endanger the American future.